Mentors can make or break a small business by providing valuable guidance and soundboarding -- but how do you know when you’ve outgrown one?
No one wants to have an uncomfortable “breakup” chat with a mentor -- it’s bad enough having to do that with a lover you’ve decided to leave.
But Natasha Norton, CEO of strategy advisory firm Accuteque says it doesn’t have to be totes awks. Norton’s firm provides structured mentoring programs for small businesses, she has also had several mentors of her own and mentors others.
Here she provides her top tips for finding the best mentor for you and your business, and how to move on without it getting messy.
Finding the perfect fit
There are two types of mentoring -- paid professional services which match you with a qualified mentor, or more informal arrangements where you meet with a mentor over a coffee.
Norton says both can work well. Informal arrangements are usually where you identify someone you think may have something to offer you and you approach them to coach you.
Norton says there are several factors in finding the right mentor -- and they’re things you may not expect. For instance, finding someone very different to you can be the key to a great mentoring relationship.
“I don’t think it’s entirely helpful to have someone mentor you who is quite similar because you get a bit of groupthink going on and we all think we’re great,” Norton told The Huffington Post Australia.
“There’s nothing wrong with a group love-in but when you’re trying to develop as an individual it’s good to have someone who will call you out and make you assess and rethink and challenge you.”
Having a mentor who has been there and done that is also essential, Norton says.
“Most people look for someone who is quite strong and distinguished in their area of expertise,” she said.
“When I am looking for a mentor it’s finding someone that is two or three steps ahead of you in terms of their own development and achievements. The coaching and supervision and mentors and stewardship that you get from them is not something that you might do tomorrow, it’s something you’re working towards.”
Having a mentor who’s well connected is essential, but Norton says to think outside the square a little and choose someone who isn’t in your line of business. These are people who have good business acumen and can evaluate your business through different eyes.
“The best mentors I have ever had are not within my industry,” she said.
Paying up for a mentoring program
Formal mentoring is a much more structured process. Accuteque deal with many small businesses and their owners who need help with structural issues such as business and marketing plans, goal-setting and HR advice.
“We set up a program for that over 12 months and have a set of goals to be achieved or topics you want to cover over 12 months,” Norton said. “If you’re going to pay for something, you want to have a plan and some accountability -- you don’t just pay to have a chat with someone.”
She said Accuteque’s mentoring services depend wholly on the business owner, what stage their operation is at and where they require assistance -- and most of the time they really need it.
“Small businesses we deal with are often struggling -- they could be family business which has a range of complexities, they might be things in terms of the setup of the business structure or operating model or they don’t know how to implement governance and policies and they are having issues because of it,” she said.
Norton says whichever mentoring option you choose, you need to make a commitment to it, or it’s a pointless exercise.
“If you’re going to do mentoring or coaching you have to invest in that relationship,” she said. “There’s no point meeting once every three months. You need to have a program in place where you’re meeting every four to six weeks.”
Knowing when to call it quits
Norton says it’s time to move on from a mentor when you feel as though you don’t have anything else to learn from them -- or they are starting to learn from you.
But breaking up with your mentor should be easy to do -- and they should be the ones to do it.
“Most times it’s mutual, in my experience,” she said. “The times that my mentoring and mentee relationships have ended it’s acknowledged that you’ve got to the point where you’ve outgrown that mentor or that you need to learn something new.
“I think it’s really incumbent upon the mentor in that relationship to bring that up, because you shouldn’t expect your mentee to bring those conversations up -- you’re the mentor and you are the more experienced individual in that relationship.
"Obviously if the mentees are comfortable enough to say something, then that’s great.”
But sometimes a mentoring relationship has a false start and simply doesn’t work despite everyone’s best intentions. It could be a personality clash or a change in your business goals -- but Norton says it’s simply a matter of being honest and transparent.
“It’s important to recognise that and to acknowledge it because no one should feel bad about a mentoring relationship coming to an end -- sometimes they just don’t work,” she said.
“I have had mentors where it became abundantly clear that they were learning more off me than I was learning off them as the relationship progressed and we were open and honest about that.
“It was just a matter that I had outgrown that person very quickly, or I hadn’t been assigned the appropriate mentor to begin with.”